Student Engagement (Down), Teacher Job Satisfaction (Down), School Safety and Academic Expectations (Down)

Helping to Raise our Students and Schools Up

Dear Colleague,

In today’s message, I am actually going to start with the “punch lines” and work backwards.

In working backwards, I am going to weave together three recent policy and practice reports on different facets of effective schools, staff, and students:

  1. The results of the 2015-2016 Gallup Poll (reported on January 6, 2016) of nearly one million U.S. students that found that approximately 50% of adolescents feel engaged in school, 20% are actively disengaged, and 10% are both disengaged and discouraged.
  2. A Winter 2015-2016 survey by the Center on Education Policy (CEP; published this month- - May, 2016) of over 3,300 nationally-representative teachers that reported that, while the majority of teachers like their school and are part of a satisfied group of colleagues, about 50% of them also report diminished enthusiasm, high stress, and a willingness to leave the profession if they could get a higher-paying job.
  3. A study involving over 31,000 surveys from teachers in 278 New York City middle schools between 2008 and 2012 (reported by the Research Alliance for NYC Schools at New York University on March 24, 2016) that found that school climate and safety, and high academic expectations were linked to an extra 6 weeks of math instruction and, in some cases, a 25% reduction in teacher turn-over.

The “Punch Line” is this: Staff cohesion, school discipline and safety, positive classroom climates and management, and student engagement and self-management are critical factors not just to student achievement, but to staff satisfaction and retention.

At the end of this message, I will discuss how we can turn all of the negatives around- - identifying what factors and outcomes schools need to focus on. . . so that students are engaged and achieving, staff are satisfied and involved, and schools are safe and successful.

Student Engagement and Encouragement

On January 6, 2016, the Gallup organization released Engaged Today- - Ready for Tomorrow, the results of its Fall 2015 on-line survey of nearly one million U.S. students. The survey asked fifth through 12th graders twenty-four questions in the areas of student engagement, hope, entrepreneurial aspiration, and career/financial literacy.

On a 5-point scale from 1-Strongly Disagree to 5-Strongly Agree, the following percentages of students answered "Agree" or "Strongly Agree" versus "Disagree" or "Strongly Disagree" in the Engagement questions below:

  • At this school, I get to do what I do best every day. [Average 3.57; 55% Agree/Strongly Agree; 16% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • My teachers make me feel my schoolwork is important. [Average 4.04; 73% Agree/Strongly Agree; 9% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • I feel safe in this school. [Average 3.93; 70% Agree/Strongly Agree; 13% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • I have fun at school. [Average 3.50; 45% Agree/Strongly Agree; 22% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • I have a best friend at school. [Average 4.38; 83% Agree/Strongly Agree; 10% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • In the last seven days, someone has told me I have done good work at school. [Average 3.65; 62% Agree/Strongly Agree; 23% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • In the last seven days, I have learned something interesting at school. [Average 3.92; 70% Agree/Strongly Agree; 13% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • The adults at my school care about me. [Average 3.85; 66% Agree/Strongly Agree; 14% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]
  • I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future. [Average 4.13; 76% Agree/Strongly Agree; 13% Disagree to Strongly Disagree]

Critically, between 10 and 15% of the students surveyed above consistently rated themselves at the lowest two levels of the five-point scale. This represents more than 100,000 students of those completing the survey.

Even more significantly, the total means for all of the Engagement questions combined systematically decreased from a high of 4.30 in Grade 5 to a low of 3.59 in Grade 11 (with a small "bump" up to 3.62 for Grade 12).

This suggests that students get progressively less engaged and feel less supported by their teachers as they get older in school.

Finally, only 48% of the student ratings fell in the "Hopeful about the future" range- - with 34% of the students considered "Stuck," and 18% considered "Discouraged."

All of this suggests that schools, staff, and students need to talk about why our classrooms, curricula, and instruction are not "connecting" in meaningful and motivating ways; and how we can increase engagement, support, and encouragement across all students and all staff.

Staff Satisfaction and Self-Determination

This month, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) published a report, Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices, revealing the results of a national survey of over 3,300 kindergarten through Grade 12 teachers conducted during the Winter of 2015 to 2016.

Covering a wide range of topics, the most important findings - - according to the Report- - included the following:

  • 82% of the nation’s teachers said that making a difference in students’ lives (82%) and seeing students succeed academically (69%) are among the most rewarding aspects of teaching.
  • 46% of teachers cited state or district policies that get in the way of teaching as a major challenge, and about 33% cited constantly changing demands placed on teachers and students.
  • Large majorities of teachers believe that their voices are not often factored into the decision-making process at the district (76%), state (94%), or national (94%) levels. In contrast, 53% of teachers agreed that their opinions are considered most of the time at the school level.
  • Nearly all public school teachers (94%) engage in collaborative activities with other teachers in their school. Most of their collaboration is with other teachers in the same subject and/or grade level. Nearly all of the collaborating teachers (90%) believe this collaboration was somewhat or greatly helpful and a good use of their time.
  • 96% report taking on leadership or student support activities in addition to their regular classroom roles, but many are not paid for these extra tasks (67% take on multiple extra leadership roles or activities).
  • About 50% of math and ELA teachers are unsure if their state will keep their current math and ELA standards and assessments. Among these teachers, 80% said this lack of certainty presents at least somewhat of a challenge to their efforts to teach the standards.
  • An estimated 37% of teachers said that they spend one week or less during the school year preparing students for district-mandated tests, while about 26% reported spending more than a month on these activities.
  • For state-mandated tests, 30% of teachers estimated spending less than a week to test-prep, with 29% spending more than a month. A greater share of teachers in high- and medium-poverty schools than in low-poverty schools reported spending more than a month on test-prep activities fordistrictand state tests.
  • 81% of teachers believe students spend too much time taking district- and/or state-mandated tests.
  • 31% of teachers would eliminate state-mandated tests, 60% preferred to reduce their frequency or length, and only 7% would keep them as they are.
  • 89% of the teachers who were formally evaluated during the 2014-15 school year received written or oral feedback. About 49% said the feedback was somewhat or very helpful in improving their instruction, while 51% said it was minimally or not at all helpful. More elementary school than high school teachers found the feedback to be somewhat or very helpful.
  • 60% or more of teachers said they like their school and are part of “a satisfied group” of teachers. And yet, 60% of teachers said their enthusiasm for teaching has lessened; 49% agreed that the stress and disappointments at their school “aren’t really worth it”; and 49% said they would leave teaching soon if they could get a higher paying job.

Without trying to causally stitch these results together, a brief summary might suggest:

  1. Teachers across the country are dedicated to their students and their academic achievement, to their colleagues and collaborating with them, and to their schools- - including through out-of-class leadership activities.
  2. Teachers, especially in high-poverty schools, spend a lot of time on state (and district) test preparation, believe that students are spending too much time taking tests, and would just as soon eliminate the state tests.
  3. Teachers (and their administrators) spend considerable time going through formal evaluations that include observations and verbal/written feedback, and that contribute to salary, tenure, assignment, and dismissal decisions. Half of the teachers found the feedback minimally or not helpful in improving instruction. (Thus, it appears that there is a questionable “return on investment” here. . . especially given all of the hours that administrators are now devoting to teacher evaluation and having staff write professional development plans.)
  4. Only half of the teachers feel that their input is impacting school-level processes, and significantly fewer believe that their voices are impacting district, state, or national decisions.
  5. Despite their student focus and school efforts, teachers feel disregarded, are becoming discouraged and dissatisfied, and their commitment to staying in the profession is waning.

(With the pool of well-trained teachers already decreasing, this is not welcome news.)

School Climate, Expectations, and Achievement

This past March, the Research Alliance for NYC Schools at New York University published Schools as Organizations: Examining School Climate, Teacher Turnover, and Student Achievement in NYC. This study involved over 31,000 surveys from teachers in 278 New York City middle schools between 2008 and 2012 in the areas of:

  • Leadership and Professional Development: Teachers’ perceptions of the quality of school leadership, feedback they receive, and professional development opportunities.
  • High Academic Expectations for Students: Which captures the extent to which schools set high expectations for all students, have clear measures of student progress, help students develop challenging learning goals, and support students toward achieving these goals.
  • Teacher Relationships and Collaboration: Which captures the extent to which teachers feel supported by their colleagues, work together to improve their instructional practice, and trust and respect one another.
  • School Safety and Order: Teachers’ perceptions of crime, violence, threatening or bullying behavior, and disrespect toward adults; whether order and discipline are maintained; and whether teachers feel safe at their school.

In many ways, this study overlapped significantly with the two studies described briefly above. Moreover, its focus on middle schools is especially important given the Gallup poll results noting the decrease in student engagement over time.

Indeed, if we can find ways to stop this “slide” in middle schools, perhaps we can keep more high school students engaged, learning, graduating, and needing less remediation (both in the workplace and in college after graduation).

Overall, the study reported the following findings:

  • All four of the areas above were independently linked to decreases in teacher turnover.
  • Indeed, if a school improved from the 50th percentile across the study’s four measures of school climate (leadership, expectations, relationships, and safety) to the 84th percentile, teacher turnover would decline by 25 percent.
  • High academic expectations and school safety were directly connected to better scores on state math exams.
  • If a school improved from the 50th percentile in school safety and high academic expectations to the 84th percentile, math scores would improve by an extra month and a half of instruction.
  • Improvements in school climate also boosted language arts scores on state tests, but those gains weren’t statistically significant.

The Report cited the following policy-related recommendations:

“Our analyses show that when schools strengthen the organizational contexts in which teachers work, teachers are more likely to remain in these schools, and student achievement on standardized tests increases at a faster rate. These findings, combined with other recent evidence, suggest that closing achievement gaps and turning around chronically under-performing schools will demand both individual and organizational solutions.

To complement the education sector’s focus on individual teacher effectiveness, there should be a commensurate body of research and policy reform aimed at measuring and strengthening school climate. Similarly, school and district leaders should have reliable data about the strengths and weaknesses of both individual teachers and schools as whole organizations, to inform systematic efforts to improve student performance.”

Significantly, as the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act will require that districts and schools measure and track a non-academic indicator of improvement, perhaps this study suggests that the biggest improvement “pay-off” will be a focus on enhancing positive school climate.

How to Enhance Staff Cohesion and Positive School Climate and Safety

As noted at the beginning of this Blog, the collective Take-Away from these three studies is this:

Staff cohesion, school discipline and safety, positive classroom climate and management, and student engagement and self-management are critical factors not just to student achievement, but to staff satisfaction and retention.

Critically, over the past 30 years, my work has identified the essential research-to-practice factors at the core of these important components.

Staff Cohesion: In order for schools to be successful, the staff interactions across a school (and district) need to be collaborative, trusting, mission-driven, and based on a shared commitment to the students, the school, the community, and each other.

The Scale of Staff Interactions and School Cohesion (Knoff, 2007; SSISC) is a 25-item survey that measures these areas by asking the staff in a school to “Rate these items based on the last two months of interactions across the staff in your school (or the last two months of the last school year, if it is now the beginning of a new school year).” Each item is rated along a five-point scale from 1-Excellent to 5-Poor, and the data can be pooled and analyzed (a) for the entire staff, (b) by different grade or instructional levels of staff, (c) by instructional versus administrative versus support staff, or (d) in some other functional way.

When staff complete and receive the results from this tool, they have an assessment of the collective perceptions of the quality of the interactions and cohesion across their school. This feedback may initiate discussions and a greater understanding as to how these interactions affect grade level, committee, and school culture, climate, and success; and what needs to be done to improve and strengthen positive and prosocial staff-to-staff, staff-to-student, and student-to-student interactions.

The SSISC has three statistically-generated factors:

Factor 1: Staff Understanding of the School’s Mission and Expectations evaluates staff perceptions of their colleagues’ understanding of the school’s mission, and how the mission impacts instruction and instructional outcomes.

Factor 2: Staff Collaboration and Cohesion evaluates staff perceptions of their colleagues’ interpersonal and interprofessional collaboration, and their commitment to professional growth, shared leadership, and staff cohesion.

Factor 3: Effective Staff Practices and Interactions evaluates staff perceptions of their colleagues’ focus on shared organizational goals, their commitment to contributing to and supporting others in meeting these goals, and their use of problem solving to identify new or needed changes when things are not going well.

After the SSISC is administered, scored, and analyzed, feedback is given in a way that best facilitates the staff’s understanding of the results, and the planning and intervention processes that need to follow. This feedback might occur initially with the school’s leadership team, then in small grade- or instruction-level teams, and then at a full faculty meeting.

Or, the feedback might occur initially at a faculty meeting, allowing staff (a) to decide what needs to be done (if anything) to further validate or clarify the results; and then (b) to develop plans to sustain the strengths and address the concerns.

The point is that the completion and analysis of the SSISC is the beginning of the journey. The staff need to decide what the results mean, and then they need to identify (a) staff cohesion strengths (so they can work to maintain them); and (b) staff cohesion weaknesses (so they can systematically plan to change them).

Effective School Discipline and Safety: In order for schools to be successful, they also need to have positive and safe school and classroom settings, teachers who integrate effective classroom management approaches with strong student relationships and students who have good social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills.

The Scale of Effective School Discipline and Safety (Knoff, 2007; SESDS) is a 58-item survey that measures a number of the research- and practice-based positive behavior support processes. To complete the SESDS, school staff are asked to “Rate the discipline and behavior management statements below on your level of agreement based on your general and specific experiences at your school within the past two months (or based on last year if this questionnaire is being completed prior to the beginning of the school year).”

Like the SSISC above, each item is rated along a five-point scale, the data are pooled and can be analyzed across different school cohorts, and the results reflect the perceptions of the staff.

The SESDS has five statistically-generated factors:

Factor 1: Teachers’ Effective Classroom Management Skills evaluates staff perceptions of their colleagues’ social, emotional, and behavioral expectations of students. Focused largely in the classroom, items assess to what degree teachers consistently teach the behaviors representing their expectations; how they provide incentives, consequences, and feedback for appropriate versus inappropriate student behavior; and whether they treat students with respect and accept the responsibility to support all students.

Factor 2: Students’ Positive Behavioral Interactions and Respect evaluates staff perceptions of their students’ social, emotional, and behavioral skills and interactions with staff and peers in both academic and social situations, as well as their students’ enthusiasm, engagement, and cooperation during learning opportunities.

Factor 3: Holding Students Accountable for their Behavior- - Administration and Staff evaluates staff perceptions of how well their administrators and colleagues hold students accountable for appropriate behavior, how consistently school rules are encouraged and enforced, and whether there is positive school spirit and low numbers of office discipline referrals.

Factor 4: Teachers’ Contribution to a Positive School Climate evaluates staff perceptions of whether their colleagues contribute to a positive school climate due to their satisfaction, involvement, cohesiveness, and productivity.

Factor 5: School Safety and Security- - Staff, Students, and School Grounds evaluates staff perceptions of how safe and secure the school is during and after school, and whether students and staff work together to keep the school clean and attractive.

Once again- - like the SSISC- - this scale, and its specific items, identify the research-based characteristics that schools need to maintain in order to be successful in these critical areas. Once completed, analyzed, presented, and discussed, schools can integrate these areas into the School Improvement Plan so that they are focused and prepared to bring their school “to the next level of excellence” relative to staff cohesion and school discipline and safety.


By themselves:

  • Student Engagement, Encouragement, and Empowerment
  • Teacher Satisfaction, Self-Determination, and Stability
  • School Safety, Classroom Climate, and Academic Expectations

are important factors that need to be part of every school’s strategic and staff development plan.

But, as discussed in this Blog- - by overlapping the three reports reviewed, these factors are interdependent, and the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

While some may say, “Why are you focusing on this area at the end of the school year- - just as we are ready to go on summer break?”

The answer is that this is the perfect time for this focus.

Every school in this country- - if it wanted to- - could have its staff complete the SSISC and the SESDS (or similar surveys incorporating these areas and factors) before the end of THIS school year. In doing this, they would get an excellent snapshot of how the school year has gone in these areas.

This, then, would prepare these school to take the survey results, have a staff discussion at the beginning of the school year (when everyone is refreshed and renewed), and turn the survey results into action steps that are written into their School Improvement Plans.

As most schools do not complete their annual School Improvement Plans until the Fall, this would maximize the investment in conducting these surveys.

While I know that everyone is currently “packing up” in preparation for the last day of school, know that the most reliable and valid data evaluating the accomplishments of the current school year is the data that you collect now.


“The beginning of the new school year begins now.”

Indeed, as we move into the last weeks of the school year, know that I appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders- - whether in your classroom, across your school, in your office, across your community, or in your home. I appreciate your care, your leadership, and your advocacy for your students- - especially those in need.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Feel free to contact me at any time. Let me know how I can help your school, district, regional cooperative, or state identify your accomplishments from this past year, so that you can “tag-team” them into the effective plans and activities needed to bring you to “the next level of excellence” next year.

Feel free to forward this Blog link to your colleagues.